JAKARTA — In a campaign laced with religious and ethnic tensions, the minority Christian governor of Indonesia’s sprawling capital was unseated by a former education minister backed by conservative Islamists, unofficial results showed Wednesday.
With nearly all the votes counted, polling companies said Anies Baswedan won about 60% of the vote in a runoff election to lead the city of 10 million people, soundly defeating incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent.
The bitter campaign evolved into a test of ethnic and religious tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, long seen as a bastion of moderate Islam.
Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” is facing blasphemy charges over remarks that allegedly insulted Islam’s holy book, the Koran. Hundreds of thousands of Islamist demonstrators took to the streets during the campaign, demanding that Purnama be jailed.
Although Purnama was widely perceived as a problem-solving administrator who cleared riverside slums and shuttered brothels, his blunt, confrontational manner was at odds with the more diffident style of Indonesian politics.
Vincent Sugianto voted at the same polling station as Purnama close to the north Jakarta waterfront. He said that the incumbent’s reform efforts and close ties to the national government should have seen him returned to office. “To run Jakarta you have to have a close link with the central government,” Sugianto said, referring to Purnama’s alliance with President Joko Widodo, Purnama’s former boss.
Unofficial results showed he won about 40% of the vote, roughly the same as in the first round of the election in February, indicating that he did not attract additional support in a city that is 80% Muslim.
“If you look at the [preelection] surveys, Ahok gets 70% of people satisfied with his work, but when asked if you will vote for Ahok the number drops to 40%,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairman of the Setara Institute, a Jakarta research organization.
“It is because of the religious sentiment,” Naipospos said.
The result was a blow to President Widodo, who preceded Purnama as the capital’s governor. It came a day before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit Indonesia and meet with Widodo on the third leg of an Asian Pacific tour that includes South Korea, Japan and Australia.
Baswedan’s margin of victory was a surprise, as polls in the week leading up to the runoff showed the candidates running neck and neck.
“Few would have predicted that it would be such a landslide victory,” said Charlotte Setijadi of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank in Singapore. “Pretty much all the pre-election polling data suggested a much tighter race or even a stalemate.”
Baswedan’s track record in government came under question after Widodo replaced him as education minister in a mid 2016 cabinet reshuffle.
However supporters believe that was down to Widodo needing to spread cabinet positions around to various parties and interest groups.
“He was removed not because he was not capable, but it was political, the president needed to include more parties,” said Bonita Andriane, a supporter of former general Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party, which was a key backer of the Baswedan ticket.
Baswedan made a political comeback after allying with Islamists who staged mass demonstrations twice in late 2016 calling for Purnama’s removal — and in some cases his execution.
The demonstrations prompted Widodo to join protest leaders onstage under a Jakarta thunderstorm in early December in an apparent bid to neutralize the campaign against the governor.
But Baswedan’s aides denied that they pandered to religious hard-liners. “We went back to focusing on unity, jobs, cost of living, education,” said Sandiaga Uno, a businessman who will serve as deputy governor under Baswedan.
But asked about the tone of the campaign, Uno acknowledged, “It has been divisive, toward nasty.”
The mobilization of religious identity for political ends could set the tone for future elections in the world’s third biggest democracy after India and the U.S.
And Baswedan’s political comeback could prompt another revival: he was supported by Prabowo Subianto, defeated by in the 2014 presidential election. Subianto is said to be eyeing a rerun of that contest in 2019.
But Widodo — a mild-mannered former furniture salesman known by the nickname Jokowi — remains popular for his efforts to cut red tape, boost small business and upgrade the country’s ageing infrastructure.The Jakarta election “creates momentum for Prabowo for sure,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, Indonesia. “But a major blow to Jokowi? Don’t think so.”